President Adama Barrow
President Adama Barrow

By: Basidia M Drammeh

Since assuming office in 2017, President Adama Barrow has been largely acclaimed for respecting human rights and the rule of law by ensuring freedom of expression, in particular. The Gambia has been enjoying a vibrant media environment where commentators have daringly chastised the President and his government’s policies without fearing for their lives, as had been the case under former President Yahya Jammeh’s autocratic regime known for its hostility to journalists and media practitioners.

Besides, President Barrow is mostly self-composed, tolerant to his critics, and accommodative of criticism, so he took everybody off guard yesterday on the first day of Eid Al-Fitr (Commonly knowns as Koriteh) when he took the opportunity during a traditional meeting with Banjul Muslim Elders to lash out at one of his arch critics Madi Jobarteh who has been very critical of Barrow’s regime, particularly its perceived inability or unwillingness to fight rampant corruption in the country highlighting the Minister of Lands’ infamous plot allocation to senior Government officials. Lands Minister Musa Drammeh, in reaction, threatened to sue Mr. Jobarteh for defamation.

Visibly irritated and agitated, President Barrow singled out Mr. Jobarteh for a rare scathing public reprimand, vowing that his government would deal with the leading human rights activist. Mr. Barrow’s uncharacteristic statement was perceived by Mr. Jobarteh as a threat to his life, prompting him to put local and international organizations on notice.

The President’s uncompromising or perhaps undiplomatic remarks have sharply divided public opinion. While Mr. Barrow’s proponents applauded him for toughening his stance against Jobarteh, who, according to them, has gone too far, the latter’s supporters took to the social media riling against the Gambian leader and characterizing his statement as an overreaction and unbecoming of a head of state. They have argued that the President would be held accountable for anything that might befall Madi.

The Gambia Press Union, in a rare move, issued a statement condemning the President’s remarks that the media outlets offer platforms to critics such as Madi to “burn” the country.

President Barrow’s uncharacteristic statement has raised concerns among defenders of press freedoms that the utterances are perhaps a veiled threat to muzzle the media and coerce journalists to self-censor or possibly meet the wrath of his government.

It’s important to remind the President that Gambians have fought hard to uproot dictatorship by voting out his predecessor, under whose regime people had to look back to utter Jammeh’s name, let alone criticize him. Constructive criticism is an added value to any vibrant and viable democracy. Democracy is noisy, and pressure groups go along with it; hence Mr. Barrow should continue to tolerate critics who would pinpoint his government’s low points. After all, you don’t expect everybody to dance to your tune or be your praise singer. Maintaining media and press freedom would only consolidate Mr. Barrow’s track record for respecting human rights and the rule of law. Anything move contrary to that would only muddy his legacy.

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